Town investing in broadband network

To educate community about scope of project
Fri, 03/25/2016 - 2:30pm

The Town Council unanimously approved allocating $124,250 to fund mid-level design work, field survey, and financial modeling for a proposed broadband network to serve homes, businesses and community anchor institutions on the island at its Thursday, March 17 meeting. The $124,250 will be taken from a $350,000 easement option paid to the town by Deepwater Wind in 2015.

This information is related to the installation of what is called a Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) broadband network on Block Island, which is designed to improve internet coverage and service.

“The $124,250 funding will provide us with the estimated capital cost of this build-out, operating costs, and potential cash flow to better inform the community in anticipation of a bonding issue being put before the voters at a Financial Town Meeting this summer," Town Manager Nancy Dodge told The Block Island Times. "There is still $150,750 remaining in the Deepwater fund, which the Council has designated for infrastructure use." (Another $75,000 from that fund was allocated to renovations at the Doctor's House.)

Since construction of the cable and the wind farm is proceeding on schedule, Dodge and the Broadband Advisory Committee, as well as members of the Town Council stressed the need “to keep the momentum going” by pushing the island-wide broadband network initiative along. 

At the March 17 meeting, the Town Council, Dodge, and the Broadband Advisory Committee met with Tilson Technology, which is advising the town on the project, to discuss the next steps. Representing Tilson at the meeting were Christopher Campbell, Principal Broadband Strategist and David Radin, a Senior Consultant with the company.

Campbell and Radin informed the Town Council that the RFI (Request for Information) circulated by the town yielded the interest of two potential internet service providers (ISP): Crocker Communications and GWI. Both of the service providers have 20-plus years of experience: Crocker Communications operates two offices in western Massachusetts, while GWI is headquartered in Biddeford, Maine.

“In the RFI, we were hoping to get one response, but we were lucky enough to get two,” said Radin. “The Broadband Committee and Tilson suggest that the town enter into negotiations with Crocker for a few reasons:” they have “superior knowledge” about the southern New England market, they’re more “flexible about the contract terms” they are offering, and town officials felt a “higher cultural affinity with Crocker.”

Radin noted that Crocker “was happy to do a three-year term, whereas GWI wanted a two-year contract minimum. At present, Nancy (Dodge) feels better about working with Crocker. There’s no doubt that either of these (ISP) companies is technically qualified.”

Councilor Chris Warfel asked Radin if he had “a written assessment of the apples to apples” comparison information of the ISP companies. Radin told Warfel that Tilson “did not have a written assessment,” but that the company could supply the Council with the “work order” for the project, which can be found on the town’s website.

At present, the Town Council is considering a model that would call for the town to build and maintain the island’s broadband network infrastructure. Under that particular scenario, the town would hire a network operator to operate and provide service on the town’s network for a set cost, based on operating costs and performance, but the town would set customer charges.

This model would mean that customers pay the network operator for service that’s provided, and the network operator would remit revenue to the town. To offset network maintenance costs, the town would use the revenue, and bear financial risk, and/or reward, for operating the network, but retain control over pricing under this model.

During the hour-long meeting, Campbell said the town has overcome the first barrier by securing the fiber optic rights in the National Grid owned cable. The second barrier: figuring out how to provide broadband service throughout the island.

“Thanks to the leadership of Nancy (Dodge) and Michele (Spero) and the town’s Broadband Advisory Committee, the town secured the rights for a fiber optic cable that’s part of the Deepwater Wind project,” said Campbell. “So, not only are you lowering your electricity costs with that connection to the mainland, but now you’ve negotiated successfully for the rights to gain access to some of the (dark) fiber optic strands (that are encased within) that electric transmission cable.”

Campbell noted that securing the rights to the fiber “provides you with a near unlimited capacity to transport Internet traffic from the island to the mainland. So, now the question is: how do you put together a network that delivers the benefits of that capacity beyond just a handful of locations on the island, and extends those benefits out to premises throughout the island? That’s really the second barrier.”

“The opportunity here is to leap frog the island from having substandard broadband service, service that’s below what you would typically expect to get for service in the U.S.,” said Campbell. “What we’re talking about is extending that fiber optic network throughout the island.”

Dodge noted that she wanted everything to be spelled out about the project so that the island’s taxpayers know what they’re voting on when it appears for bonding at a Financial Town Meeting. She said she would be looking at state and federal grants to augment the cost of building the network.

“We don’t want to do this incrementally,” said Dodge. “We want the whole cost of the project out there. This is what you’ll get. This is ultimately what it’s going to cost. This is the worst case scenario.”

“It’s certainly an appropriate use of the Deepwater money,” said Second Warden Norris Pike, referring to the $124,250 the Town Council allocated at the meeting. “I agree with moving forward and keeping the momentum going. The worst thing with any project is to stall.”

First Warden Ken Lacoste asked the Tilson representatives what the timeline would involve moving forward. Campbell told Lacoste that it would be wise to engage the next step in the process conservatively, proceed with a “mid-level design,” and begin the intensive field study, which will take about four months to complete.

Dodge said that the town has the “full support” of Thom Guertin, who is the Chief Digital Officer in the state’s Office of Digital Excellence. “He’s fully supportive of us proceeding forward with this, and funding this stage of the project,” she said.